“Click Below to Subscribe to Our Free Monthly eNewsletter!”
As Featured On EzineArticles
What Training Shamu’s® Trainers Can Teach You About Leadership

At some point you’ve probably seen Shamu®, the killer whale at SeaWorld, leap out of the water and perform amazing behaviors. It’s pretty incredible. And, because I had the honor of working closely with Shamu’s® trainers during my career with the Anheuser-Busch company, I was often asked by theme park guests “How do they make the whales jump like that?” My answer was always the same, “They don’t!”

Seriously, just imagine the picture . . . a human of maybe 6’5” at most, and a killer whale measuring up to 22 feet long and weighing 10,000 pounds (about the size of 1-2 school buses)…do you really think it’s possible to “make” the whale do anything that he doesn’t want to do? Let me answer that for you…no.

When one of my favorite clients recently asked me how to convince his employees to raise their performance standards, I found myself going back to the basic principles I learned from the trainers, which have been invaluable leadership tools. Here are five of the top tips:

Tip 1. Respect the whale. Above all else, the trainers have enormous respect for this huge icon, and it was apparent in every decision and action they demonstrated. In return, the whales (and dolphins and sea lions for that matter) responded to what was expected of them, more often than not. Why should it be any different with us? After all, we really can’t force anyone to follow our lead. However, when we demonstrate genuine respect for the people we’re working with it can certainly be a nice incentive.

Tip 2. Demonstrate professionalism, trust, and positive intention. I can honestly say, I’ve never seen a more consistently professional group of people than the marine life animal trainers at SeaWorld. They say what they mean, and they mean what they say. More importantly, they expect the same level of professionalism from everyone on their team, and anyone that enters their work environment. Early in my career, I began working with the trainers to help enhance their on-stage presentation skills, and I truly learned as much from them as they learned from me. When your genuine intention is to want the best for others and you consistently demonstrate professional behavior, expect quality work, and treat every individual in the same fair manner, you set the tone for your environment.

Tip 3. “Catch” them doing something right!
When a trainer requests a behavior of a whale, they can usually expect the whale to either respond accordingly or ignore the request. The trainers aggressively look to spot the correct response and praise the mammal like crazy. However, when the response is an undesirable one, the trainer simply ignores the incorrect behavior and redirects their attention either back to the original request or on to something else. This way, the mammal gets attention only when they respond appropriately. The funny thing is, it’s usually the opposite scenario in the human world. We’re usually ignored for doing something right, and criticized for doing something wrong. Where’s the motivation in that scenario? Look for progress, redirect when your team is off track, and give the positive attention to those who are giving you what you asked for.

Tip 4. Keep it interesting. Every animal has its own meal, activity, and reward plan, suited to their individual needs and preferences. There are no “blanket” rewards, the trainers work to find out what each mammal responds to and then positively reinforce with the appropriate reward. In other words, some of the whales enjoy a “rub down,” or their favorite toy, ice cubes, or fish. The trainer establishes a consistent routine, but keeps the “rewards” interesting so the animal doesn’t lose interest. Why not try this with your team? Instead of arbitrarily giving everyone a free lunch or random “good job,” find out what matters to the individual. Some people prefer to receive a letter of thanks, a promotion or title change, a cash reward, recognition in front of their peers or family, or maybe just a heartfelt acknowledgment for a job well done. Keep your team engaged and you’ll enjoy the return on your investment.

Tip 5. Raise the bar, literally. A huge leap starts with a small move in the right direction. When teaching a marine animal a behavior, the process is broken down into small approximations. In other words, the animal is asked to touch his rostrum (what appears to be his nose) to a pole very close to the water. When he does, the trainer rewards the animal and then continues raising the pole and rewarding the correct action with each request. Before you know it, the animal will make huge leaps…ultimately without needing to see the pole. Try this same process with those you lead. Start with a small request, reward the effort, and continue to raise the bar. Your team will come to anticipate higher expectations and will rise to the occasion, even when you’re not there to oversee them.

So the next time you’re wondering how to “make” your team comply, forget about it. But you can certainly encourage them to want to aim higher and follow you out of trust and respect for your leadership.
Activate Potential. Realize Results.™

©2010 Lisa Broesch. All rights reserved internationally. Permission granted to excerpt or redistribute with attribution and notification.